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Leaving Global Warming To The Bureaucrats

In his TRB column this week, Jon Chait argues that EPA regulation is the best option left for tackling global warming, given the deadlock in the Senate. True, relying on the EPA's regulatory tools won't be the most elegant or efficient way of reducing greenhouse gases—a market-based cap-and-trade system would be far more flexible. But Senate conservatives are dead-set on blocking the elegant and efficient solution. Meanwhile, Jon's section on why some issues are better left to unelected bureaucrats was interesting:

In 1997, economist Alan Blinder made a provocative case for putting problems in the hands of unelected experts. Writing in Foreign Policy, Blinder recalled his experience at the Council of Economic Advisers, where, he wrote, “a policy’s merits can quickly get buried under a mountain of political detritus even before the policy emerges from the White House pressure cooker. Then it goes to Congress, where things only get worse.” Blinder left to work at the Federal Reserve, where decision-making, while imperfect, followed policymakers’ sense of the public good.
Blinder did not argue for dictatorship by wonk. (Wonktatorship?) Instead, he suggested that certain kinds of policies better lend themselves to government-by-expert rather than government-by-Congress. Blinder did not mention carbon emissions, but his three criteria turn out to describe the issue to a tee.
First, it’s a technical issue requiring specialized knowledge. (Anybody unfortunate enough to witness the blustering assaults on climate science by meatheads like James Inhofe or Joe Barton can easily grasp the pitfalls of allowing Congress to adjudicate science.) Second, the issue requires long time horizons. Congress is not designed to minimize the risks of catastrophes that might take place decades hence. Nor is it prone to consider the interests of potential future industries, like renewable energy, alongside existing ones. And third, the issue requires imposing short-term pain in order to avert long-term costs, a trade-off most pols are loath to make.

I'm not entirely sure about this. After all, if the United States had a simple parliamentary system where a large majority party could enact the policies it was elected to enact, then we'd have a climate bill by now. Probably something akin to what the House passed last year. It wouldn't be a climate wonk's wet dream (they all seem to prefer nice, neat carbon taxes), but it'd be a major step forward. The problem isn't so much Congress in the abstract as a peculiar institutional design unique to the United States making it nearly impossible to get sweeping legislation passed into law.

But enough whining about the filibuster. Here's a recent piece I did outlining what, exactly, EPA carbon regulations would entail. A number of experts I talked to suggested that, in the short term, an EPA crackdown on fossil polluters plus an ambitious energy-only bill from Congress that promoted efficiency and other forms of clean power could actually accomplish a lot in the next decade or so (at least so long as Congress or, say, President Palin don't step in and neuter the agency). There are lots of factories and power plants out there that are woefully inefficient, the technology exists to improve them, and a regulatory nudge from the EPA, while not the most nimble way of doing things, would start cleaning up the air. (It'd become virtually impossible to build any new dirty coal-fired plants, for instance.) As studies like this one from McKinsey have found, we could easily cut, say, 20 percent of our emissions this way.

In the long term, though, we'd really need a price on carbon to transform the country's energy sector and give people incentive to develop new clean-energy technologies—having the EPA just flatly tell polluters that they have to adopt this or that specific pollution-cutting gizmo isn't very good for innovation. But hey, maybe a few years from now we'll have a Congress that's ready to address this problem. Odder things have happened.

(Credit for the graphical depiction of what will happen once the EPA asks power plants to use somewhat more efficient processes: Jayce2009)